June 27th, 2010
The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, waterlilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.” — Luther Burbank

Recently someone asked on Twitter, “Why create hybrid tomatoes that mimic the look and taste of heirloom tomatoes when you can just grow heirlooms?” My answer (despite the fact that I do grow heirloom varieties). Early blight. Late blight. Southern blight. Verticillium wilt. Gray leaf spot. Septoria leaf spot. And improved yields. Even the heirlooms that are currently popular have been selected and saved because they had something special that caught human attention. We are always on the lookout for bigger, better, and more because our population keeps increasing while the amount of land available for food production decreases.

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” — Thomas Jefferson

By Jefferson’s measure, Luther Burbank stands head and shoulders above everyone. Burbank was not a plant explorer, scouring the new continent for plants unknown to European settlers. He was a plant inventor. He created more than 800 plants. Plumcot. Shasta daisy. Spineless prickly pear. Russet potato. Royal walnut. Elephant garlic. Stoneless plum. None of these plants existed 150 years ago and all of them are the results of his efforts.

Jane S. Smith has written a very readable biography–one that provides plenty of specific information and establishes the historical and social environment in which Burbank created.

As a young man, Burbank read Darwin’s Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication which sparked in him the idea that he could accelerate evolution by selection, crossing, grafting, and even changing the environment in which plants grow. And then he just went out and did it.

Burbank was not a scientist in today’s narrow sense of the world. He was not interested in theoretical knowledge, in controlled experiments, in keeping careful documentation in order to ensure reproducible results. He focused on the practical application of Darwin’s theories. Like his friends, Edison and Ford, he was an inventor and a businessman. However, unlike them, his inventions–new plants–could not be patented.

Immensely popular in his day, his name was good business for the seed companies and booksellers. Yet, he did not fit easily into other people’s schemes. The fledgling scientific community was baffled by his–what we’d call these days “New Age”–ideas. In order to protect his business, he was not open about his processes. And he did not keep precise records. He knew what he did and how he did it but he wasn’t anxious to share his methods with others and thus lose his competitive advantage. He also got into trouble with fundamentalist Christians for bold claims of improving on God’s creation and also for suggesting that we not “search the Bible for rules of blind obedience or…frighten children with visions of hell. The meaning of life was to be found in the flow of experience, not in any expectation of heaven.” He was “denounced in pulpits across the country” and received “hate mail, abusive telegrams, and threatening phone calls.”

Burbank’s practices of carefully breeding and ruthlessly selecting only superior plants did not extend to his ideas on improving the human race. He did not approve of eugenics in any of its forms. He lectured, “What we should do is strengthen the weak, cultivate them as we cultivate plants, build them up, and make them the very best they are capable of becoming.” He was an advocate putting off formal education until a child was at least ten, of a national system of non-sectarian relief to provide food and a healthy environment to children whose parents could not afford to provide for them. He believed investing in children was a shared investment in the future of the country, not charity.

In our century, plant invention has moved into what many consider the dark area of genetically-modified organisms. Jane S. Smith makes an insightful contrast to today’s patented monocultures.

“From the Plant Patent Act of 1930 to the contemporary battles over bioengineered crops, the history of modern agriculture is a record of increasing claims of property rights over what once was the common heritage of nature…Burbank and all his man plant-breeding brethren were dedicated to expanding the grower’s options, supplementing known varieties of just about every kind of plant with new ones that looked better, lasted longer, grew more lushly, tasted sweeter, could be shipped farther, and could be afforded by every consumer.”

Today the focus of the large plant breeder seems to be a desire to constrain natural biodiversity in order to give them a monopoly on their patented creations.

I really enjoyed The Garden of Invention. If you are interested in reading it, it’s on sale at Daedalus Books for $4.98. (No, I’m not getting a referral fee. I bought my copy at Half Price Books for $9.99).

by M Sinclair Stevens

4 Responses to post “The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants”

  1. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    I’ll check this one out! Thanks for the idea!

    I’ll lend it to you if you like. It was really a much more fun read than my review of it makes it sound. I come off sounding a lot more dry than Jane S. Smith–she really breathed life into her subject. — mss

  2. From Dorothy @ Gardening with Nature:

    I read this book last year and enjoyed it immensely. Burbank was a very interesting person. In his honor, I grew a ‘Burbank’ tomato in my garden this spring. It was pretty prolific and had good taste. Unfortunately, I planted it late so didn’t get as much production out of it as I might have.

  3. From angelina:

    In spite of having lived in Luther Burbank’s home town and spending hours in his demonstration garden, I knew almost none of that. That’s really interesting!

  4. From Alison Kerr:

    I love the quote from Luther Burbank and I could not agree more. Here’s to outdoor nature for kids!